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Ruling protects homeless people from having vehicles towed in Washington state

The Washington Supreme Court issued a key decision Thursday protecting people who are living in their vehicles from having them towed.

SEATTLE — Washington’s Supreme Court has issued a key decision protecting people who are living in their vehicles from having them towed.

In a case that drew widespread attention amid the region’s housing crisis, the justices held that it was unconstitutionally excessive for Seattle to impound a homeless man’s truck and require him to reimburse the city $550 in towing and storage costs. 

Further, the court said that vehicles people live in are homes and cannot be sold at a public auction to pay their debts. That eliminates a financial incentive for towing the cars in the first place.

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The man at the center of the case was warned by police four days in advance that his vehicle was violating a city ordinance requiring vehicles parked on public streets be moved every 72 hours.

“(Cities) can enforce all of the laws they have on the books. What the supreme court case said, essentially, is that when you’re imposing fines, you have to look at the person that you’re imposing the fines on, and if the fine is going to destroy them, if it's going to ruin them, if it's going to destroy their livelihood, then that’s an unconstitutional fine,” said Bill Maurer, managing attorney of the Institute for Justice Washington Office.

In response to the court's decision Thursday, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said there will be "wide reaching implications" as a result of the ruling. 

"This decision will have wide reaching implications for how Mayors and City Councils from every Washington city respond to people living in their vehicles on public property. We anticipate that elected policymakers will adjust their policies to align with today’s ruling, and our attorneys will advise them as they make their decisions," Holmes said in a statement. 

In January, 2020, there were an estimated 11,751 individuals experiencing homelessness in King County, an increase of 5% from 2019, according to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which helped conduct the Point-In-Time count, an annual one night count of individuals experiencing homelessness. The count was not done in 2021 due to the pandemic. 

According to the data collected in 2020, of those experiencing homelessness, about 53% were sheltered and 47% were unsheltered. The number of people living in their vehicles increased from 2,147 in 2019 to 2,748 in 2020. The report states the increase may be due to the expansion of safe parking programs.

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